One of the simplest ways to make your images more effective is by paying attention to this one fundamental component of photography and applying it in ways that you may not have thought of.
In a recent beginning landscape photography workshop that I held, one student said his takeaway would be to look for contrast when choosing his compositions. That got me thinking about all the different ways that contrast comes into play when looking for good landscape images. So, I decided to take a closer look and see what other ways, besides the difference between lights and darks, a photographer can look to find opportunities to use contrasting elements to create stronger images.
In a way, photographic imagery is really only possible with contrast. Some degree of contrast between two things is what allows us to see them at all. For example, a white subject against a white background will just disappear. You need contrast between the two to see it, even if it’s only along the edges of the subject.
And the histogram on the camera is showing us the range of values and the degree of contrast between the two. All the values bunched in the middle generally equals a flat, dull image.
Finally, all image-sharpening software works on contrast in one way or another as well. It essentially just increases the difference in contrast at the edges of objects so as to increase the apparent sharpness of the image.
Thus, contrast is integral to photography. But what are practical ways to make better use of it in your photographs? Here are some things to pay attention to that will give you some starting points or at least give you some insights as to why pro landscape photographers shoot things the way that they do.
Contrast can come in many forms, but the one that generally leaps to mind is the aforementioned difference between lights and darks. This is particularly important in black-and-white photography, as the absence of color requires the photographer to look more closely at the difference between shadows and highlights in the scene. This can be found in many places: the difference between sunlit objects and those in the shade, or snow on a mountaintop and dark trees in front of it, or dark trees against white clouds. Lights and darks and often the subtle tones that separate them are what make both color and monotone images sing when you can apply good contrast.
In practical terms, this can be as simple as placing a bright subject against a darker background or maybe looking for opportunities to use back-lighting on your main subject, again, against a darker background.
Also, look for how the light is falling across a scene. The degree of contrast between the lights and darks in an image is what gives it life. Having values that are spread out across the histogram generally creates a more balanced and punchier image. Exceptions can be found, of course, depending on the subject matter, but generally, having values at both ends of the spectrum gives an image the best contrast.
The contrast between lights and darks also gives us visual clues to the texture of objects. Examples of contrast in texture in landscapes might be found in a rugged mountain range against a smooth sky or clouds or a smooth and glassy lake contrasted with trees or rocks on the shore. So, look for contrasting textures in your subjects. Find light and times of day that enhance the textures you want to bring out, and juxtapose objects with different textures when you can to create a contrast between the two.
Contrasting Movement and Stillness
In still photography, this can be another way of creating different textures. Often in landscape photography, you see this one at work in long exposures of the ocean contrasted with jagged rocks along the coastline or a river flowing over rocks and moss. Star trails contrasted with a static foreground are another example. You can use long exposures of water and fast-moving clouds against more static objects to help create depth and interest. ND filters are really handy here.
This is the difference between things on the red end of the color spectrum and those in the blues. If you have a subject that is mostly in the warmer tones, offset it against a blue sky or blue water for dramatic effect. Speaking of blue skies, it’s also the reason many landscape photographers like to have a plain blue sky broken up by clouds. The contrast between sky and clouds makes it more interesting and gives it dimension.
Contrasting In-Focus and Out-of-focus Areas
This is one of my favorites in macro photography. I like to use the focal point to define a primary subject and separate it from its surroundings. Plus, depending on the lens, the out-of-focus bokeh can add an important visual element. It can turn a flowers’ petals into a soft wash of color, but it works best when there is a contrasting sharp area to balance the image and give it a focal point. This can be useful in many other situations as well. It's just another way to help separate visual elements in an image. Something that is in focus stands out from a background that is out of focus, adding dimension. So, get closer to your main subject if you can and let that background go soft.
Contrasting Near and Far
This is at work in images where something that is known to be small is in the foreground with something large, say a mountain or clouds, in the background. It gives the viewer a feeling of the distance involved. You see this all the time in wide angle landscape photography. If you are using a wide angle lens, get close to some interesting flowers or rocks to juxtapose with the mountains in the background. Or you can use limited focus here as well to create that sense of distance.
These are just a few ideas of places to start paying attention to contrast in a variety of ways in your images. Once you start looking at your images in this way, there is an almost infinite variety to the types of contrast you can find. So, if you want to make your landscape (or any type) of photography stronger, start paying attention to and finding ways to apply contrast.